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Excerpted From: Jennifer Terrell, Ballot Denied: Voting in the Age of Covid-19 , 34-OCT 20 CBA Record 20 (September/October, 2020) (Full Document)


The Covid-19 pandemic, coupled with increased turnout for a presidential election, will JennyTerrelllikely result in even more pitfalls and disenfranchisement than usual, especially for voters of color. Voters of color already disproportionately face barriers to voting such as:

(1) In Illinois, voter registration rates for voters of color lag behind those of white voters. United States Census Bureau, Voting and Registration in the Election of 2016, Table 4b, Reported Voting and Registration by Sex, Race and Hispanic Origin, for States: November 2016.

(2) Voters living in entirely Black census block groups on average must wait longer at the polls than voters living in census block groups with no Black residents. M. Keith Chen, Kareem Haggag, Devin G. Pope & Ryne Rohla, Racial Disparities in Voting Wait Times: Evidence from Smartphone Data, NBER Working Paper No. 26487 (2019).

(3) Uneven access to quality translations of ballots and other voting materials increases the burden on immigrant voters, many of whom are voters of color.

(4) Given the disproportionate impact of the criminal justice system on Black and Brown community members, the unique barriers to voting faced by citizens held in pre-trial detention are also disproportionately borne by people of color.

The Covid-19 pandemic already led many jurisdictions to undergo drastic changes to their election processes for the primary elections, principally closing polling places and expanding vote by mail, without sufficient time for the community input and planning that would ensure the most equitable outcomes. As seen in Indiana's June 2020 primary, the widespread closure of polling places in response to the pandemic further burdens voters who cannot or will not vote by mail. Black voters move more frequently and are more likely to lack a permanent address than white voters, making mail-in ballots less of an option for Black voters. See, e.g., Jay Young, Commentary: Sorry, but not all of us can vote from home, Chi. Trib., (May 11, 2020), . Many voters with disabilities and any voter using same-day registration also cannot use a vote by mail system. While an expanded version of vote by mail is one important option to present to voters for the 2020 General Election, it cannot be at the expense of losing other methods of voting.

Of course, for those voters who do choose or need to vote in-person, election authorities must make voter safety paramount. As has been well-documented, the Covid-19 pandemic also has disproportionately affected people of color, both in infection rates and in deaths. See, e.g., Richard A. Oppel, Jr., et al., The Fullest Look Yet at the Racial Inequity of Coronavirus, N.Y. Times (July 5, 2020), . Without sufficient personal protective equipment for polling place personnel and voters, combined with clear guidelines around safety protocol, the most medically vulnerable voters may not risk casting a ballot. No one should have to choose between their personal safety and exercising their fundamental right to vote.

As evidenced in headlines across national media, many feel that right is coming under increasing threat each day. Recently, the Chicago Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and a group of pro bono attorneys moved for an injunction to stop enforcement of Indiana's deadline of noon on election day to receive mail ballots--a seemingly arbitrary cut-off that gains alarming significance in the face of potential cuts to the United States Postal Service. Just as many small acts of disenfranchisement erode a democracy, many small acts of resistance against that disenfranchisement help to shore up our citizenry.

Jennifer Terrell is a Program Counsel at Chicago Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights.

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